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close this bookEnergy as an Instrument for Socio-economic Development (UNDP, 1995, 114 p.)
View the document1. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development
View the document2. Energy as an Obstacle to Improved Living Standards
View the document3. Energy's Role in Deforestation and Land Degradation
View the document4. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development from an Anthropological Perspective

3. Energy's Role in Deforestation and Land Degradation


In developing countries, firewood is the major source of cooking and heating fuel for most rural communities and for the majority of urban dwellers. In the developing world as a whole, about 2 billion people rely solely on fuelwood as their energy source for heating and cooking.2 Traditional fuels, mostly firewood, supply about 52 per cent of all energy required in sub-Saharan Africa.3 In the Sahel region, fuelwood contributes even more significantly to the overall energy needs of households; in some countries, providing up to 90 per cent of domestic fuel requirements. In The Gambia in 1992, total energy consumption was estimated at 262,710 tons of oil equivalent (toe), of which 61 per cent was from traditional energy sources. Total energy consumption in Burkina Faso was estimated at 1.7 million toe, of which 91 per cent was from traditional energy sources; in Niger, it was estimated at 1.1 million toe, of which over 80 per cent was from traditional energy sources; and in Mali, 1.8 million toe, of which 1,627,400 was from traditional energy sources.4

These figures demonstrate the critical importance of fuelwood in meeting energy requirements in these countries. In general, the situation is similar in most other parts of sub-Saharan Africa and some pans of Southeast Asia. Indeed, as economic growth becomes sluggish, revenues continue to decline, and the problems related to conventional energy use continue to increase, fuelwood consumption throughout Africa is increasing. In addition, rapid population growth and urbanization create even more demand for energy in its cheapest and most accessible form, that is, fuelwood. This demand puts pressure on biomass resources and arable land in an already deteriorating environment. This pressure, in turn, tends to jeopardize economic growth and put at risk the poorest and most vulnerable groups of the population, mostly women and children.

In the Sahel, energy plays a critical role in the interrelationship among environment, development, and population. The Sahel exemplifies the vicious cycle that begins with the use of fuelwood used for energy in an inefficient and unsustainable manner. Between 1980 and 1987, a significant number of countries in the Sahel experienced economic decline; these are the same countries that have experienced cyclical droughts for the past two decades. Moreover, these countries have naturally poor soils to begin with, and have experienced repeated pest invasions and resulting agricultural losses. These problems in turn contribute to rapid urbanization, as rural populations migrate to urban areas. The rapidly growing urban centers then consume even more fuelwood than the rural areas.

It is estimated that by 2005, some 35 per cent of the people living in the Sahel will reside in urban areas.5 In the developing world in general, it is estimated that by the year 2025, 4 billion people will be classified as urban.6 This corresponds to the total world population in 1975. Thus, it is imperative that in these countries, appropriate energy policies be adapted if environmental disaster and all its ensuing consequences, both economic and social, are to be averted.

Energy as a Contributing Factor to Deforestation and Land Degradation

It is estimated that within the next three decades, the world population will increase by nearly two thirds, from 5.5 billion to 8.5 billion, of whom 7.1 billion will live in developing countries, mostly in urban areas.7 This large population increase will correspondingly result in more pressure on limited and already degraded natural resources, especially in developing countries. The demand for energy will undoubtedly increase, and this will mostly be met through the felling of more trees for fuelwood and for charcoal production. The expansion of agricultural activities is generally considered to be the dominating cause of deforestation and land degradation, with the supply of fuelwood contributing to a different degree in different parts of the world, e.g., in Northern China, it may account for 30 per cent of the land clearing.8 (Editor's Note: see chapter 5, and particularly note 16 for additional references to this subject.)

Already, in many developing countries, the demand for fuel-wood is far greater than the supply. In many areas of western and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, fuelwood consumption is running 30 to 200 per cent ahead of the average increase in the stock of trees. Along with the clearing of land for agriculture, this phenomenon is dramatically reducing forest lands. Between 1980 and 1990, tropical forests declined about 0.8 per cent per year, or 15.4 million hectares annually.9

In 1977, the use of wood as fuel accounted for about 47 per cent of world wood consumption (1,184 million cubic meters out of some 2,500 cubic meters). In developed countries, fuelwood accounted for about one tenth of total roundwood use (refers to any wood felled or harvested from trees regardless of its use); in developing countries, it accounted for four fifths.10 This is evidence of the significance of fuelwood in the deforestation process in these countries. The importance of wood as a primary energy source varied widely among various world regions, with most fuelwood consumption taking place in developing countries.

Today, developing countries consume even more wood and wood products, primarily as fuelwood and charcoal, and clear more forestland. In Mali, in West Africa, wood consumption is estimated at 5 million tons per year, representing an annual deforestation rate of nearly 400,000 hectares.11

The problem is further exacerbated by the rapid urbanization in most of these countries and the need to meet the energy requirements of expanding cities. With the irregular and mostly inefficient conventional supply system, the predominantly urban poor turn to fuelwood or charcoal as their main source of energy for both domestic and industrial use. It is estimated that 48 per cent of the land that was cleared between 1988 and 1993 in Burkina Faso was to satisfy the charcoal demands of Ouagadougou; only 7 per cent was attributed to wood.11 India has also witnessed an increased demand for fuelwood in urban centers in the last fifteen years. In Brazil, charcoal is also a main source of industrial fuel.

Currently, industrialized countries consume more energy than developing countries. However, it is estimated that in the next century, developing countries will become the largest consumers of energy. For example, China is the third largest consumer of energy in the world. Approximately 80 per cent of the energy requirement in rural China is met from traditional biomass fuels such as fuelwood and straw. It should be noted that two thirds of the population of China are in the rural areas. China consumes more of these fuels than any other country, about 500 million tons annually This rate is not sustainable even in the very short term, especially as firewood consumption is more than twice the sustainable harvest.13 In India, wood is also the main source of energy for the rural population. If the forests are harvested in a sustainable manner, they can provide up to 41 million cubic metres of fuelwood per year. Yet the current annual demand has been estimated at 240 million cubic meters. The difference in the supply and demand dynamics is indeed alarming.14

Forest cover in industrialized countries showed a slight increase in the decade 1981-1990. In some European countries (for example, Finland), the deforestation rate was zero during this period.15 In the tropics, however, annual deforestation rates were 0.8 per cent, with rates in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Pacific region higher still. It is estimated that global loss of above-ground biomass from deforestation was 2.5 gigatons annually during the period.16 The loss of above-ground biomass results in soil degradation, creating serious additional environmental, economic, and social consequences. In Africa, for example, the soil of some 320 million hectares is moderately or seriously degraded.17

Environmental Impacts

The environmental consequences of deforestation and land degradation are severe. They include ecological instability, loss of agricultural production, desertification, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.


Firewood is generally obtained from local sources, and this exerts growing pressure on the trees, bushes, and shrubs near inhabited areas. Long before the extraction of firewood from the forest leads to complete destruction of the tree cover, it can cause serious environmental degradation. Excessive pruning of the branches may reduce a tree's capacity to grow; removing the more easily felled younger trees may reduce the regenerative capacity of the forest; removing too many trees, and thus, opening the forest's canopy, may make the forest susceptible to wind and sun, cause erosion, affect wildlife, and reduce biodiversity; removing all residues also removes the nutrients that should return to the soil and which maintain fertility; and removing stumps, bushes, and shrubs can destroy the soil's remaining protective cover and binding structure.

Eventually, in the developing countries, the whole forest maybe felled and disappear. Until the 1940s, forests had completely disappeared in most of China because the trees had been felled to be used as fuel. In recent years, however, there has been a reversal in this trend, and vast areas have been successfully reforested. (Editors Note: See chapter 7)

Deforestation leads to losses of top soil and nutrients, mostly through wind and water erosion. This subsequent decline in soil fertility in turn results in loss of agricultural production and degraded pastures. It also causes siltation in waterways, as well as salinization and acidification of soils. The net effect is an unstable ecosystem that cannot support a sustainable livelihood system for either humans or animals. Charcoal production has similar environmental effects as firewood, from which most charcoal is obtained.


Forests are being cut down faster than they can grow, partly to make room for new farmland and partly to harvest trees as fuel. As a result, erosion destroys upland areas, and the resulting sediments fill reservoirs. Downstream flooding destroys cultivable soil and food crops.

In the Sahel, land degradation is the single most important factor preventing sustainable crop production. The combination of land degradation, drought, and desiccation (the process of land becoming more arid as a result of decades of dry spell), poses nearly insurmountable problems, including loss of top soil and/or loss of soil fertility, and declines in productivity.


Desertification results from a series of environmental problems that render the land unfit to support human or animal life. Firewood consumption is a significant contributing factor. Desertification is usually accompanied by dessication and drought, and has serious economic and social consequences. It contributes significantly to climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, the Sahel is the preeminent example.


The clearing of forests and the burning of firewood add to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Recently, it has become clear that the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere from forest cutting and burning and from certain soil management practices is approximately one third the amount generated by fossil fuels (estimated at 6 × 1015 g c/y); of this amount, forest clearing in developing countries accounts for 1.6 × 1015 g c/y18

The direct combustion of firewood created emissions consisting mainly of particulate, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Relatively few data are available on the quantity of emissions from burning wood in wood stoves, although data have long been available on emissions from industrial boilers burning wood residuals. More understanding is needed of the potential impact of emissions from wood stoves. (Editor's Note: See chapter 5 for a comprehensive review of studies on emissions from wood stoves from all parts of the world).


Deforestation and land degradation also contribute significantly to the loss of biodiversity. If current trends continue unchecked, human activities such as firewood collection may soon have irreversible impacts. These impacts include species loss, habitat loss, declines in the variety of genes within a species, and overall declines in the number of species. These losses will affect the production of pharmaceuticals and medicines, biotechnology, and food security, among other things.

Social Impacts

In 1981, the Food and Agriculture Organization showed that of the 2,000 million people, who depended on wood for fuel, 96 million were already unable to satisfy their minimum energy needs for cooking and heating. An additional 1,052 million people were in a "deficit situation" and could meet their needs only by depleting wood reserves. Out of this total of 1,148 million people, more than 64 per cent lived in Asia.19 Shortages were most acute in the arid regions of Africa, the mountainous areas of Asia (particularly the Himalayas), and the Andean plateau in Latin America. Overall, an additional 400 million cubic meters of fuelwood per year was needed to make good the deficit.

The situation has been growing rapidly worse since then. According to FAO, projections for the year 2000 suggest that, unless there is immediate action, 2,400 million people either will be unable to obtain their minimum energy requirements or will be forced to consume wood faster than it is being grown. By then, the world fuelwood deficit will reach 960 million cubic meters per year - the energy equivalent of 240 million tons of oil. If the fuelwood deficit had to be met by increased oil consumption, the cost would be - even at the low price of $30 per barrel for crude oil - about $ 50,000 million per year.20

Obviously, the fuelwood deficit will not be met in this way. The cost is too high and the developing countries - most of which are net oil importers - cannot afford the foreign exchange that would be needed. In practice, the cost of the fuelwood crisis must be measured, less accurately but more painfully, in terms of human suffering.

Table 3.1 - Time Spent Gathering Fuel, Early 1980s


Average Hours per Day

Explanation of Work

Southern India (6 villages)


Women contribute 0.7 hours; children contribute 0.5

Guajarat, India


In family of 5,1 member often spends all his/her time on it



Often 1 adult and 1-2 children do fuelwood collection



Traditional women's work



Often is carried about 45km



Women sometimes walk 25 km



Women do 75 per cent of fuel gathering



1 full day's search provides wood for 3 days



Women gather and cut wood

Source: World Resources Institute, World Resources Report 1994-95, p.47 (New York: Oxford University Press).


Environmental destruction and degradation in developing countries inevitably increase rural women's workload. Because they are responsible for heating the home and cooking the food, women and their children are the first to suffer.

Deforestation makes it more difficult and more time consuming for rural women to collect fuelwood and other forest products; carrying loads of up to 35 kilograms, they are forced to travel ever longer distances to collect the bare minimum of wood needed for survival, sometimes up to 10 kilometres (see Table 3.1).

Urban dwellers, too, must rely on supplies that come from farther and farther away. In India, in the city of Hyderabad, fuelwood is transported from 50 to 280 kilometers away; in Bangalore, it is transported from about 40, and sometimes up to 700 kilometers, away. During the past decade, families in Kunzono, Zaire, required one to two sacks of charcoal per month to meet their basic needs. At a cost of about $300 per ton, a single sack cost the equivalent of one third of a worker's monthly wage. In the poorest parts of the Andean Sierra and in the Sahel, as much as 25 per cent of all household income must be spent on fuelwood and charcoal; in some East African households, this figure is as high as 40 per cent.22

Two decades ago, it took no more than two hours to gather firewood and fodder in the foothills of the Himalayas; now it takes a full day of walking through mountainous terrain. Over a ten-year period, the time it took to collect fuelwood in the Sudan increased more than fourfold. In rural Bangladesh, women spend three to five hours per day searching for fuelwood.

In some countries (for example, Bangladesh), when fuelwood is not available, women shift to alternative and sometimes inferior fuel, for instance, animal dung and crop residue. These fuels not only take longer to burn, they also produce hazardous fumes. The use of dung also deprives the soil of nutrients needed for agricultural production. Lack of fuelwood sometimes forces women to reduce the number of hot meals their families receive.

Like fuelwood gathering, water collection is also becoming more difficult as land degradation spreads and water sources are depleted. Women may spend up to four hours per day collecting water for the home and the farm, often carrying 20 kilograms or more in containers on their backs, shoulders, or heads.

The loss of production due to land degradation also means that women have to work harder to increase their yields. About half the world's food is grown by women; in Africa, 95 per cent of the work of feeding and caring for their family, including food production, is done by women. Two thirds of women workers in developing countries are in the agriculture sector. In many places, women are also primarily responsible for animal husbandry, i.e., caring for livestock and poultry and collecting fodder.

Women's agricultural work gives them valuable knowledge about local ecosystems, including soil features, multiple uses of crops, and health care for small livestock. Their experience is vital in maintaining crop diversity; in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women cultivate or collect more than 160 different species of plants on fragments of land scattered among men's crops and surrounding communities.

For centuries, women have managed forests and used forest products, collecting fuel, fodder, and food from trees and other plants. They regard forests, like agricultural products, as multi-functional and use them in various ways to meet basic family needs.

In many developing countries, not just women, but also girls, are involved in traditional chores. In Africa, India, and other parts of South Asia, young girls may spend all day collecting wood and water, doing domestic work, and farming. They begin at an early age, and thus, have little or no opportunity to get an education.


Using fuelwood to cook has negative consequences for women's health, particularly when the stoves are inefficient. Because of the confined spaces and poor ventilation, women inhale smoke, including toxic gases; the smoke also causes eye irritation, and respiratory diseases and the extreme heat has negative effects on skin. (Editor's Note: See chapters 2 and 5 for a detailed discussion of these effects.)

The lack of adequate fuel also causes serious health and nutrition problems, whether the lack is caused by distance or cost. The principal food crops in developing countries almost all require cooking to be palatable or even fully digestible. If cooking is reduced because of lack of fuel, protein intake is often reduced as well. In many areas, families now can only eat one cooked meal per day (instead of two) simply because they lack fuel. Agricultural practices are changing because vegetables that can be eaten raw are now chosen over other, more nutritious foods that need cooking.

The effects of fuelwood shortages extend far beyond the individual family, producing a chain of reactions affecting the nature of rural society, its agricultural base, and the stability of its environment. As fuelwood becomes scarcer, substitutes such as straw, dried dung, rice husks, and even plant roots are utilized. Whether these materials were previously used to feed animals or to restore nutrients to the soil, there is a major loss to the food production system. The land becomes impoverished, and there is a loss of nutritious food needed; women and children often lose out because of social customs that put them last in line for food. Malnutrition can result.


Land degradation often creates pressures to migrate, either to other countries or to urban areas within their own countries. When the situation is particularly severe, especially when it is accompanied by an extended period of drought, the result may be the displacement of a large number of people, now often called "environmental refugees." The term first came into use during the 1984 drought and famine in the Sudano-Sahelian countries, when 35 million people were displaced, crowding into cities like Khartoum or making their way to relief camps in Ethiopia and the Sudan. Sometimes, whole villages had to be resettled. The consequences of environmental breakdown reverberate through society in decreased birth rates among displaced populations, higher infant mortality rates, and a great deal of personal distress.23


It is now evident that an adequate and efficient supply of energy is fundamental to sustainable development and economic growth in the developing countries. It is also becoming increasingly evident that the energy needs of the developing countries cannot be met from conventional sources, due to the prohibitive costs involved and the lack of the requisite financial resources in these countries. This, therefore, means that ways and means have to be explored of ensuring the sustainable use of fuelwood, complemented by the use of other types of renewable energy and the adoption of energy-efficient technologies.

Sustainable fuelwood use can be achieved through the creation of woodlots and the increased productivity of natural forest through proper management. For example, in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Ghana, where the population growth rate is about 3-3.5 per cent per year, the demand for land for agriculture and for fuelwood resulted in excessive tree felling, declining land productivity, and increased siltation of dams. Despite indiscriminate tree-felling, there were still fuelwood shortages. In 1988, the Government of Ghana, with external assistance, started a major agro-forestry project. Free tree seedlings were provided for 19 groups of women farmers, who were encouraged to plant these seedlings in woodlots, alley cropping orchards on farms and along stream boundaries. Thousands of trees have been planted by the 3,400 women who participated in the project.24 The project has had the net effect of improving soil fertility, and will enhance production and reduce the need for fertilizers. In addition, when the wood-lots mature, they will reduce the burden on women in terms of the time they spend gathering fuelwood. Women will also have more money because of what they are not spending on fuelwood, which could be used to enhance the quality of their lives. Thus, through the sustainable management of fuelwood resources, not only are the women provided with an easily available resource, but their quality of life is also enhanced and the quality of the environment is improved.

New developments in technology also facilitate the transition to more efficient energy, and ensure a better demand for management while enhancing the quality of life for women. In Senegal, improved kilns for charcoal production, which required a relatively small investment, increased the carbonization yield by at least 20 per cent.25 This has the effect of reducing the amount of trees needed for charcoal production, thus, reducing the pressure on the resource base.

In China, two thirds of the total rural population today use stoves that are at least 30 per cent more efficient than older stoves.26 In addition to reducing the demand for fuelwood, such stoves have the beneficial effect of reducing the health hazards to women of smoke inhalation. There is also evidence that devices such as fish-smoking ovens also save considerable time and labour for women. The savings in time can result in more time being spent in leisure activities or other income-generating activities. This usually results in an improvement in women's well-being, and in the care and feeding of their families. (Editor's Note: See chapter 7 for a discussion of China's stove program.)

In most developing countries, there is the need to create a conducive policy environment to ensure conservation of energy and better demand management. Current energy policies do not provide any incentive for conservation in that energy prices are mostly subsidized. There is a need to allow market forces to determine the prices for energy (including fuelwood and charcoal), for it is only when these commodities are valued at their real market prices that action aimed at curbing demand will be taken by consumers. In addition, there is the need to look at incentives to encourage such practices. This has been adequately demonstrated in the developed world. For instance, in the United States, demand management techniques are used in the utility sector, including regulatory provisions that reward the companies for investing in energy efficiency. Energy tax policies have also successfully curtailed demand for gasoline in Europe. Such deliberate policies are instrumental in restricting demand or promoting the use of more sustainable supply sources.

In the past, it was generally believed that economic growth and development resulted in a transition from traditional to conventional means of energy. We now know that this is a myth. Furthermore, we are also now more aware of the environmental consequences of conventional energy which, in turn, have social and economic impacts. Given the massive financial investments required in terms of assuring a reliable energy supply using conventional means, and the current economic situation in most developing countries, it is clear that their energy problems will not be solved through the use of conventional energy.

Yet we know that energy services for domestic and industrial purposes are a fundamental prerequisite for development. Developing countries possess the type of resources that, if adequately harnessed, will supply the energy requirements of these countries in a sustainable manner. Through the sustainable use of such resources, improvements can also be made in the quality of life of women and children, while enhancing the quality of the environment. The energy sector represents a significant economic activity and source of employment in most developing countries. Improvement in this sector will, therefore, impact positively on their economies. Thus, developing countries need to embrace comprehensive energy policies that reform the current situation in that the economic, social, and environmental gains are tremendous and will go a long way toward improving the quality of life of the present and future generations.


1 Ndey-Isatou NJie is Executive Director, National Environment Agency, The Gambia.

2 World Resources Institute, World Resources Report, 1994-95 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 33.

3 World Resources Institute, Work? Resources, 1994-95, p. 10.

4 World Bank, Africa Technical Department, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes in the Traditional Energy Sector, Proceedings of Workshop 11, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, February 21-25, 1994 (Working-level translation from French), pp. 28, 48, and 77.

5 World Bank, Africa Technical Department, Review of Policies, Strategies and Programmes in the Traditional Energy Sector, Proceedings of Workshop 1, Bamako, Mali, May 10-12, 1993 (Working-level translation from French, June 1993), p. 23.

6 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 31.

7 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 27.

8 International Centre for Education and Research on Desertification Control ("Desertification and Rehabilitation in China," Lanzhou, 1988).

9 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 130.

10 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Environmental Impacts of Production and Use of Energy: Part III - Renewable Sources of Energy, Energy Report Series (Nairobi: UNEP, 1980), p. 85.

11 World Bank, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes (1994), p. 60.

12 World Bank, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes (1994), p. 36.

13 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 67.

14 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 89.

15 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 307.

16 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, pp. 130-31.

17 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 34.

18 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

19 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Map of the Fuelwood Situation in Developing Countries (Rome: FAO, 1981), p. 3.

20 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Wood for Energy, Forestry Topics No. 1 (Rome: FAO, 1984), p. 3.

21 Data in this section largely from World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, pp. 43-57.

22 FAO, Wood for Energy, p. 5.

23 Assessment of Desertification and Drought in the Sudano-Sahelian Region (New York: UNDO, 1991), p. 54.

24 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 55.

25 World Bank, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes (1994), p. 103.

26 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 69.